“How Did You Come Up with the Idea of BetaMatch?” and Other Questions You’ve Been Dying to Ask BetaMatch’s Teacher Lead

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A  Q&A with Dawn Casey-Rowe, the teacher lead for Startup Weekend #NYCEDU’s winning team, BetaMatch.

Dawn Casey-Rowe

Q: How did you come up with the idea of BetaMatch?

A: The idea for BetaMatch came from a variety of different places. I had reconnected with my college friend, Kamal Ravikant, over some writing projects this past spring—Kamal is an outstanding Silicon Valley entrepreneur, which I hadn’t known much about when we reconnected; he was trying to get me to do some writing, and I read through his mind-blowing material, including the book he was in the process of releasing. I hadn’t known exactly what he did in Silicon Valley except that it was something to do with computers.

I had been looking for teachers who used technology, but I had the following restrictions. First, I had no budget, and second, no computers. I figured there must be teachers out there in similar situations. Kamal and I were talking about this—he’s not in EdTech, but the fact that he did something with computers led me to ask him about classroom technology. He said he knew people in that EdTech—that “there was a lot going on in that field.” I figured he knew some teachers. I was wrong–he knew a lot more. He sent me the Learnist beta shortly after it was I think it was released in May. This literally changed the direction of my life.

I sent Kamal an email saying how much I loved it. It was just what I was looking for. That email found it’s way back to Farb Nivi. I was able to give feedback to Farb and the team. Learnist was fantastic, but there were a couple things that would have made it better for teachers specifically, even though it’s an open platform. Farb and the team listened to the feedback and changed things so I can use it in and out of the classroom today. From there, I became increasingly more involved in EdTech.

I don’t think I’d have been as able to give feedback to Farb if he wasn’t Kamal’s friend—I thought I was helping a friend of a friend. Teachers are trained to be nice–I wouldn’t have wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings if I didn’t like a product or platform.  However,  startups need direct, pointed feedback. This whole experience made me realize that it’s important to match up entrepreneurs and teachers, getting the right types of honest feedback back to the entrepreneurs, and it would be great to have a large-scale process to do that.

Later on, I connected with Shawn Rubin, who’s doing great things in this area in Rhode Island. He works for the Highlander Institute, which does tech outreach locally, and he has his own startup, Metryx. He invited me to a group called the EdUnderground, which started as a professional learning network, and has morphed from there. We ended up creating monthly meetups for educators to meet entrepreneurs. We had people traveling great distances to gain access to educators for feedback at these gatherings, which have been growing and continue to grow.

When StartupWeekend came, I was going to go watch to see if we might organize something locally. Heather told me to compete, so I figured I’d pitch the idea for these meetups in platform format.  Shawn couldn’t go, but Kyle Judah, who came to one of the meetups, went.

Kyle and his partner Jason Woodward were going to help with this platform. By the time they got to New York they advised that they were more interested in doing something having to do with professional development. Ultimately, they stayed on board and were an integral part of the team.

Q: Who was on your team and what was it like to work with them during Startup Weekend NYC EDU?

A: The team consisted of me, Jason Woodward (engineer extraordinaire), Kyle Judah, (marketing, biz dev), Karleen Levellie (marketing), Arielle Norling (Front end design/ UX/UI), John Baldo, (former teacher turned engineer), Ope Bukola (who taught herself Ruby in a year—amazing!!!) and Yannick Guillemot (coder/developer, awesome).

Q: What was the best moment of Startup Weekend NYC EDU for you?

A: The best moment of Startup Weekend for me was talking to people—I came to meet incredible people, and I did. I always love hearing about other people and their vision. When I had mentors approaching me and talking about the vision this simple idea could bring forward—informing me that investors told them that this idea would be perfect for helping investors vet their EdTech startups because in addition to matching people for our original purposes—creating a feedback loop—we had the potential to own the data about what startups succeeded and in which demographic or under what conditions. Basically, I came with a simple idea that was put together from a variety of sources, and gained a vision about how that idea had the potential to be an industry game-changer.

Coming from public education, where things do not change quickly and there is a committee for everything, gaining the realization that I, as an individual,  can have an impact on the industry—whether through this venture or another—that was the best moment for me.

Q: What are your plans and what do you need going forward?

A: I felt that I couldn’t move forward without including the people who have worked so hard to get the boots-on-the-ground network we have in Rhode Island off to a running start. I went to SWedu to vet that idea, and found it to be wildly successful. I think that a couple people from the team are interested in getting the platform going right now, however, I’m going to continue to work toward expanding our networks here in Rhode Island and consider the best way to proceed forward.  I believe in this idea—I want to use this idea, and to some extent we already are. There are so many directions that it can take—from very, very simple—matching up educators and entrepreneurs, to pretty complicated data analysis. So, we shall see how it best serves the education community.

Q: What advice do you have for others interested in jumping into the edtech space?

A: I came to this field completely by accident—I literally hadn’t known this entire world existed beyond some newspaper stories here and there. I hadn’t known the impact of the connections my friend Kamal was making for me. I thought he’d connect me with a few people using technology in the classroom, maybe teachers who had budget constraints, too, and I would compare notes and learn. To some extent, entering the space in this way has given me a better perspective and more honesty in offering my opinions. Now I understand the arena a lot better—something which competing in Startup Weekend helped me to do. This competition filled in many of the missing pieces as to how one gets from ideation to iteration with a startup. I do have some business experience—I own a business of my own—but this has been an entirely different experience. I think that I have learned critical things. EdTech is highly competitive, but there is space for good ideas that solidly have the educator and students in mind.

There is a lot more to succeeding in this area than having a great idea, however—there is promoting, connecting, and building relationships, something I have learned becoming involved with  the EdUnderground and the Rhode Island EdTech scene, and from working with a number of the industry’s leading visionaries at Learnist.  I have always loved education and connecting with people—this is the foundation of marketing and outreach—having a genuine love for the space and a passion to make education perfect. Even if I can’t make it perfect, I can, as one single individual, make it far better over time.

My advice—as someone who is very new to this field and decidedly unqualified to give advice—is if you have that love, that passion, get involved. Build a team you love that has the same passion as you. If you can do that, you may find an area of opportunity that is not being currently addressed in the field, or you can tweak an idea to make it work better.

There are a ton of startups out there. Everyone is a co-founder this, entrepreneur that. That’s true—you have to be those things, but if you are a “lover of all things ed/EdTech,” that’s the most important thing. Then, you will have a real shot of succeeding and making something that truly has an impact on students and the field of education.

 

A note from the Startup Weekend #NYCEDU webmaster: This blog post represent the last blog post of the 2013 Startup Weekend #NYCEDU experience. Thank you to all the organizers, mentors, judges, volunteers, and most importantly, participants who made this weekend incredible. Please stay in touch via Twitter and email, and look for updates next year when we start this whole adventure all over again.

~Deborah Chang